Salt Lake 4, Las Vegas 3
Key: The Bees took a 4-2 lead on Luis Rodriguez’s RBI double in the seventh and held off the 51s, who left the tying run on third base in the eighth and ninth, when Daniel Stange struck out Kirk Nieuwenhuis to end it.
Next: Season over
The last time 51s manager Wally Backman faced a playoff team featuring Bill Buckner, his New York Mets won the 1986 World Series.
Backman’s squad had no such luck on Saturday afternoon, as Salt Lake starter Billy Buckner — no relation to the former Red Sox first baseman — pitched 6 2/3 strong innings to help the Bees beat Las Vegas 4-3 and eliminate it from the Pacific Coast League playoffs before a spirited crowd of 1,342 at Cashman Field.
“You’ve got to tip your hat to the pitcher we faced,” Backman said. “We faced Buckner and he did a good job. He kept us off balance and gave his team the chance to win the game.”
Buckner, who got the win, allowed two runs on five hits to outduel 51s starter Aaron Harang, who gave up three runs on six hits in six innings.
All four games of the PCL Conference Championship Series were decided by one run and on Saturday the 51s left the tying run on third base in the eighth and ninth inning, when Daniel Stange struck out Kirk Nieuwenhuis to end it.
“Every game played out that way and we fell short,” Backman said. “We had opportunities and those guys made some great diving plays over the course of the series where we could’ve blown games wide open.
“It was a very good series and I’m proud of the way the guys played. We played hard, but we could’ve played a little bit better.”
Nieuwenhuis led off the game with a homer and struck out swinging to end it.
“It’s been a great season, but you don’t want to go out like that,” he said. “We played pretty well but it’s tough to be going home. We fought a lot the last month or so, but we couldn’t pull this one out. It’s a bummer.”
Dustin Lawley walked to start the ninth, took second on a sacrifice bunt and went to third on a fly out before Nieuwenhuis’ at-bat.
“He was throwing fastballs up — a little bit too far up,” Nieuwenhuis said. “I was a little bit aggressive there. He made some good pitches.”
The 51s scored a run in the eighth to make it 4-3 as Ruben Tejada and Mike Baxter belted consecutive doubles to open the inning. Baxter took third on a groundout, but was stranded there as Jeremy Berg got Jamie Hoffmann to ground out to second with the infield in and struck out Rylan Sandoval looking to end the threat.
“The whole key to the series was pitching,” Backman said. “You’ve got the two best offensive teams in the league and five runs was the most scored by either team.
“We didn’t hit with runners in scoring position the way we normally did.”Las Vegas, which went 3-for-14 with runners in scoring position, tied it 2-2 in the fourth, when Hoffmann drilled a leadoff double and Sandoval followed with an RBI single.
Tommy Field hit a towering tiebreaking solo home run to left field in the fifth off Harang to put Salt Lake ahead for good.
The Bees added an insurance run in the seventh, when Backman used three different relievers. Luke Carlin singled off Robert Carson, took second on a sacrifice bunt off Greg Burke and scored on Luis Rodriguez’s RBI double off Justin Hampson to make it 4-2. Field, who drew a walk off Hampson, was thrown out trying to score.
Salt Lake scored two in the fourth to take a 2-1 lead. Matt Long and Rodriguez hit consecutive singles to open the inning and former UNLV standout Efren Navarro followed with a tying sacrifice fly. Roberto Lopez singled and Scott Cousins drove in a run on a force out.
Going back to the regular season, Las Vegas was involved in six straight one-run games, losing five of them.
In their first season as the Mets’ Triple-A affiliate, the 51s made the playoffs for the first time since 2002 and, with an 81-63 record, were only the fourth team in franchise history with at least 80 wins.
“We won the battle but we didn’t win the war,” Backman said. “We got to the playoffs. We fought. We tried to win. The guys didn’t quit.
“They deserve a lot of credit for doing what they did.”
Contact reporter Todd Dewey at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0354. Follow him on Twitter: @tdewey33.